Tag Archives: Coventry

Hole Lot of Fun

HOLES

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 20th February, 2020

 

Author Louis Sachar adapts his own wonderful novel for the stage in this engaging production.

It tells the story of hapless young Stanley Yelnats, an unfortunate young man wrongly accused of the theft of a pair of valuable sneakers and is despatched to a detention camp in the middle of the Texan desert, where he and the other inmates have to dig holes in the dirt all day.  It’s character building, you see.  Stanley believes his family is cursed since the long-ago theft of a gypsy woman’s pig and, as his history unfolds, we tend to agree with him.  But Stanley is able to take charge of his own destiny and change his family’s fortune for ever.

James Backway makes an appealing protagonist as Stanley in this Shawshank Redemption for kids.  It is against his goodness that we measure the other characters: the other inmates, who have their own code of honour, and the adults, past and present, most of whom ought to know better.  Backway is instantly likeable and sympathetic, and while this is an ensemble piece, he is the lynch pin of the story.

Leona Allen also elicits our sympathy as weirdo inmate Zero, while Harold Addo’s X-Ray quickly establishes his status – Characters are drawn with broad strokes, but this helps to keep the story flowing at a fast pace.  Elizabeth Twells is superb value as Stanley’s Mom, and especially in her roles as Myra and as Kissing Kate Barlow, the female outlaw of yesteryear.  There is strong support from everyone, including Henry Mettle as Armpit, Ashley D Gayle as Sam the Onion Seller (among other roles) and Matthew Romain as Elya Yelnats and Trout Walker (which is his name, not his occupation).  Almost stealing the show is Rhona Croker as the callous deliciously evil Warden who has her own agenda.   Of course, this being fiction, she gets her comeuppance in glorious fashion, but there is more to Sachar’s tale than that.  Every element, every thread of the storyline is woven together into a complex and satisfying tapestry that speaks to us of destiny and free will, with themes of fairness and racism, friendship and honour.

Director Adam Penford is able to serve all the elements of the story well by keeping the staging simple (but not unsophisticated) with single props serving as signifiers for entire locations – a ladle shows we are in the dinner queue, a battered sofa places us in the rec room… He also brings in puppets (courtesy of Matthew Forbes) for the local fauna – the rattlesnake is particularly fine, and so are the dreaded yellow-spotted lizards.  Simon Kenny’s design evokes the desert setting and is enhanced by Prima Mehta’s judicious lighting.

The translation of the story from page to stage works excellently, losing none of the book’s humour, heart or humanity, and the production provides top quality entertainment for all the family without being sentimental or, dare I say it, ‘holesome.

HOLES. Leona Allen, James Backway and Rhona Coker. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Zero and Hero: Leona Allen and James Backway, holed up in a hole while Rhona Croker shines a light (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

 

 


Beat box and Bicycles

CRONGTON KNIGHTS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, 13th February, 2020

 

Alex Wheatle’s popular YA novel is brought to vibrant life in this irresistible adaptation by Emteaz Hussain.  The story charts the events of a single night as a group of friends set off on a quest into enemy territory to right a serious wrong.  Basically Venetia (‘V’) needs to reclaim her smartphone from her ex-boyfriend because its photo album contains some extremely intimate pictures of her.  The ex lives in ‘Notre Dame’ where other gangs, like the nasty Hunchbackers hold sway.  As if that were not enough, the friends have to avoid the villainous Festus – luckily he is easily distinguished by the bandage around his head.  And so, the ‘Magnificent Six’ embark on their mission and on the 159 bus.

The play reminds me of several things: Homer’s Odyssey, The Warriors, Stand By Me, Ostrich Boys- even The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, as the friends encounter peril after peril at each stage of their journey.  The witty use of urban slang brings to mind A Clockwork Orange.  One of the key joys of this piece is its language; utterly current and streetwise – I’m sure the younger members of the audience got it more than I did.

What sets this show apart is that it’s a beatbox musical – two words almost guaranteed to put me off, but no, I find this to be sophisticated, stylish stuff as the cast, using only their vocal abilities, create all the music live, before our very ears. There are harmonies, percussive beats, melodic accompaniments… The original songs by composer Conrad Murray are tuneful; the entire score is a varied palette, and it is all performed flawlessly by this extremely talented ensemble.

Aimee Powell leads the singing as V, with a sweetly soulful voice, while others provide raps: Zak Douglas’s lovesick Bit and Nigar Yeva’s plucky Saira perform with commitment and intensity to the rasping beats of Khal Shaw’s sometimes hysterical Jonah.  Kate Donnachie’s oddball, bike-riding Bushkid, the quirkiest member of the squad, also has a rich singing voice that soars above the rhythm.

As I say, they’re a talented bunch, with the moves to match but for me the star turn comes from Olisa Odele as wannabe chef McKay, who sings, raps, moves and acts like a young and tubbier Todrick Hall.  Corey Campbell impresses as McKay’s troubled big brother Nesta, while Simi Egbejumi-David’s Festus is suitably menacing and nasty.

The fights, directed by Roger Bartlett are well, almost gracefully, choreographed.  The action scenes sometimes have a cartoony aspect for comic effect.  Co-directors Corey Campbell and Esther Richardson draw upon the actors’ skills at slow-motion and physical theatre to enhance the storytelling.  It all adds up to a highly effective staging of an engaging story with likeable characters and beautiful music.

Although this is aimed largely at a teen audience, there is plenty for everyone else to enjoy, in the telling and in what is being told.  Gangsters are so often glamorised in popular culture; this play confronts that image with stark reminders of the harsh realities of lives lost or blighted by these carryings-on.  There are other nobler, more honourable ways to live.  The Magnificent Six show that kids can gang together for positive outcomes.

An uplifting, impressive show that delivers its social commentary with humour and a lot of heart.

Aimee Powell, Nigar Yeva, Olisa Odele & Kate Donnachie - photo credit Robert Day

Aimee Powell, Nigar Yeva, Olisa Odele & Kate Donnachie (Photo: Robert Day)


Art Full

FAGIN’S TWIST

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 13th March, 2019

 

Avant Garde Dance Company’s take on the Dickens classic offers a few surprises among an impressive display of contemporary dance, informed by an urban aesthetic.  It certainly is a sight to see: the precision, the skill, the energy, but I have a problem with the first act.  Apart from an introduction from the Artful Dodger (Aaron Nuttall) there is little in the way of exposition.  The scenes that link the dance sequences are therefore not as clear as they could be, and so while I appreciate the mechanised, repetitive dehumanised routines in the workhouse, I’m not entirely sure who the characters are who plot their escape.

At the top of the second act, Dodger gives us a recap and mentions the others by name at last.  It seems a clumsy way to do things, rather than simply amending the dialogue in the earlier scenes, but at least it leads to better storytelling.  There is some clever rhyming and word play in Maxwell Golding’s writing thought, and some cheeky references to song titles from the Lionel Bart musical.

Arran Green’s Fagin is tall and slender, towering over the action in his big coat and top hat.  Green moves with elegance and humour – spoken scenes are also accompanied by choreographed moves and gestures – and there is a lovely, sinuous quality here.

There is a striking duo (or pas de deux, I suppose) between Bill (Stefano A Addae) and Nancy (Ellis Saul) and a surprising twist (as in plot rather than Chubby Checker) from Sia Gbamoi as Oliver.

Yann Seabra’s costumes reference the story’s Victorian origins, while the score (by various) is relentlessly of the now.  Seabra’s set, before it becomes other things, starts off as a big fence.  Which is what Fagin is, if you think about it!  Jackie Shemish’s lighting is as taut and evocative as the performances; it’s as though the lighting is another dancer!

Tony Adigun’s choreography is expressive, mixing fluidity of forms with sharper, jerkier, inorganic moves but I think as much attention needs to be given to characterisation in the spoken scenes as is devoted to the dance sequences.  Rather than being a moving story, I find myself marvelling at the performance of this amazing ensemble rather than engaging with what the characters experience.

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The cast of Fagin’s Twist

 


Chilling at Home

THE HOUSE ON COLD HILL

Belgrade Theatre,  Coventry

 

When Ollie and Caro and their teenage daughter move into their new ‘forever home’ they soon are made aware of the house’s shady past.  Local tittle-tattle is rife and before long, strange things are afoot: objects moving, doors slamming, shadowy figures at the window…

And so the stage is set for Peter James’s haunted house thriller.  Shaun McKenna’s adaptation uses every trick in the book, so to speak, to give us the conventional shocks and surprises we expect.  But what makes this story fresh and alive is it is bang up-to-date, with plenty of current pop culture references along with modern technology being put to use.  FaceTime and an Alexa both help further the plot, providing some scary moments.

Joe McFadden is web designer Ollie – he even gets to dance about a little for a quick Strictly in-joke – and he portrays the descent from enthusiastic sceptic to desperate believer with energy, credibility and likeability.  Rita Simons plays against type (she was formerly good-time gal Roxy Mitchell in EastEnders) and is fine in a role which has lots of exposition and some great moments of reaction.  Persephone Swales-Dawson’s teenaged Jade has to cope with some too-trendy-by-half dialogue, actually saying things like “OMG” and “Lol” rather than reserving such argot for online communication.   She also has some great reactive moments.

There is enjoyable character work from Tricia Deighton as local hippy-dippy psychic Annie, and I like Padraig Lynch’s genial vicar, Fortinbras.  Charlie Clements (another EastEnders escapee) gives strong support as computer geek, Chris, who may or may not be up to no good, while Leon Stewart makes an impression as Phil the builder.

Ian Talbot’s direction strikes a balance between building tension and releasing it, either with shocks or comic relief, abetted by Michael Holt’s gorgeously gothic set and Jason Taylor’s lighting, which is both subtle and dramatic.

Atmospheric and entertaining, this is a conventional yet effective chiller, a ghost story for our times.

 

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Padraig Lynch, Joe McFadden, Rita Simons, and Persephone Swales-Dawson face something scarier than a PPI call…

 


Getting into the Spirit

THE CANTERVILLE GHOST

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 18th December, 2018

 

Tall Stories bring Oscar Wilde’s novella to the stage in this breezy adaptation devised by the cast.  A quartet of music hall performers (a magician, a comic, a psychic, and the Chairman) enact the story, interspersing their acts between the scenes.  The Wilde and the music hall acts are given equal weight; it’s like we’re getting two shows in one – and there’s a reason for this, a reason for the outmoded music hall motif…But I’ll get to that.

Tom Jude amazes as Tom Artaud, the stage musician.  There’s a lot of stage magic in this production from sleight of hand to making things disappear, and it’s refreshing to behold first hand in this jaded, CGI world we live in.  Jude is also delightful as the disgruntled Sir Simon de Canterville, the eponymous ghost, and hilarious as the housekeeper almost collapsing under the weight of her own baggage.

Matt Jopling is young William Otis, and also a very physical comedian.  His act includes a foul-mouthed ventriloquist dummy, demonstrating Jopling’s well-honed skills, and a wicked sense of humour.  Like the stage magic, it’s a treat to see old-school ventriloquism performed so well and with an edge.

Lauren Silver is William’s twin, Olivia, and also an hilariously hammy stage psychic, retching when the spirits enter her, with her charlatanism on her sleeve – until her tricks work out, that is, and you can’t work out how she does it!

Steve McCourt, the Chairman, is mainly at the piano, but he also appears as the twins’ father, a crass salesman of household goods.  McCourt has a beautiful singing voice, especially when backed by gorgeous harmonies, provided by the other three.  The songs by Jon Fiber and Andy Shaw have a jaunty music-hall feel with clever lyrics, but also a melancholy touch.  The entire show has intimations of mortality running through it like lettering in seaside rock.  We are urged to enjoy the moment, to tell our stories well, so that we will be remembered…

Running in parallel to the Wilde story of the spectre with unfinished business, trying to clear his name for a murder he didn’t commit, is the story of the four music hall performers who have their own reasons for setting a record straight.  It ties the production up neatly and cleverly.

This is an utterly charming show, performed by appealing actors.  Using only a simple set of doors and curtains, they conjure up both the music hall stage and Canterville Hall.  The direction (by Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell) keeps things slick and fluid, capitalising on the actors’ physicality and a host of sound effects to add to the humour of the presentation.

A well-crafted, beautiful bauble of a show, it’s not for the little ones, but families with older kids will be tickled and enchanted.  I loved it.

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Stubborn stain! Matt Jopling, Tom Jude, Steve McCourt, and Lauren Silver

 

 


Double-edged War Puns

OVER THE TOP

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Saturday 8th December, 2018

 

It’s become quite a tradition at the Belgrade that while the panto is on in the main house, the B2 studio hosts an alternative, something for the grown-ups.  This year, writer Nick Walker chooses the centenary commemorations of the end of the First World War and of the start of the women’s suffrage movement as the basis for this pun-riddled romp.

As ever, the script is jam-packed with groanworthy gags, delivered with the rapidity and subtlety of a machine gun, as it tells the story of four men enlisted to go to the Front to rescue a troupe of actresses.  The cast is entirely female – the reason for which becomes apparent by the end.

Laura Tipper sings sweetly as Bell, and harumphs horribly as Sidebottom, complete with period moustache.  Aimee Powell is dashing as Ashwell, dapper in black tie and tails.  Kimisha Lewis shows her versatility as Flowers, a German, and a balletic Red Baron.  Miriam Grace Edwards is magical as stage magician Mickey… The ladies have several roles each and are well-matched for talent and likeability.

Walker’s clever script has a repeating plot device, taking us back time and again to a music hall, interspersed with scenes of action and espionage reminiscent of a John Buchan.  Director Katy Stephens, a veteran of several of these shows, paces the delivery to perfection.  There is a silent-movie type sequence involving a bomb in a French restaurant that is superb, and a break from the otherwise relentless barrage of bad jokes.  (“Is it snails?” “No, this is a fast food restaurant.”)

It’s not all daftness and running around.  Walker, recognising the solemnity of the occasion, provides a sucker punch ending.  We’ve all seen how Blackadder turned out; here the impact is equally if not more powerful as it is revealed that the characters are all based on real women, and there really was a mission to rescue the actresses.  The final moments commemorate the contributions of women to the war effort and the sacrifices they made, something that many of the events we have seen over the past four years have overlooked.

Delightfully corny, rib-ticklingly daft, and ultimately sobering, this is a solid hour of entertainment with a powerful message.

OTT


The Boy Who Never Grew Up

HAMNET

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Wednesday 21st November, 2018

 

No, you read it correctly.  This is not Hamlet, the great tragedy, but it concerns another production of Shakespeare’s: his only son, the ill-fated Hamnet who died at the tender age of 11 while his father was working away from home.

11-year-old Aran Murphy commands the stage in a beguiling, captivating performance as Hamnet questions the nature of existence.  His refrain is “I haven’t done anything” – referring to the injustice of his untimely end, and the whole of his brief life’s experience.  West embodies innocence and schoolboy curiosity, charming an audience member out of his seat to join him in a scene in which Prince Hamlet is confronted by the ghost of his father.  Hamnet, the boy, is haunted by his absentee father.  “If I don’t talk to strangers, I’ll never meet my dad.”

A perky lad, he has his father’s aptitude for performance.  When his dad finally appears, manifesting on the huge screen that reflects the audience back at itself, the on-stage boy and the reflected boy interact with the figure in perfect unison.  Objects moved by the on-screen Shakespeare move as if by themselves on the stage.  It’s a dazzling piece of stage trickery: they have to pre-record these moments anew at each venue.  Or perhaps it’s some kind of Pepper’s Ghost set-up, brought into the 21st century…

It dawns on us that rather than the son being haunted by his father, the man is haunted by the child he left behind and then lost forever.  A quote from King John is like a punch in the feels.  “Grief fills the room up of my absent child…”

Written by Ben Kidd and Bush Moukarzel, this is a moving meditation on the nature of life and death, a pint-sized Hamlet, I suppose.  Deceptively simple, this is a powerful production by Irish company, Dead Centre.  Funny, enchanting and poignant, it’s the kind of stuff that stays with you.  Very little is known about the actual boy in question, but I will be haunted for a long time by this breath-taking performance from Aran Murphy (pictured)

aran

 

 

 

 


Bolly Good Show

DISHOOM!

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 16th October, 2018

 

Priding themselves on giving voices to British Asian theatre-makers, Rifco Theatre Company brings this new piece from playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti (writer of the excellent Elephant) to Coventry.

Set in 1978, this is the story of Simon, a wheelchair-bound Indian boy, growing up in England.  His mother having died, Simon is brought up by his father and grandmother – the latter expressing her shame at having such a child in the family.  When Baljit comes to stay, ostensibly to ‘help out’, Simon finds an ally in his bid for independence.

It’s a very funny family drama, along the lines of Anita & Me and East is East, dealing with the clashing of cultures: traditional Indian values vs trying to fit in to a British way of life – but also, the rise of the National Front, a stain which spreads and spreads until the characters, chiefly Simon, have to confront it.  With the bookish Baljit at his side, Simon is bolstered by the fantasy world of Bollywood films – the play’s title is an onomatopoeic word for the sound of a bullet being fired.

In his professional debut, Bilal Khan impresses as the beleaguered Simon, while the excellent Gurkiran Kaur’s Baljit is both a figure of fun and a voice of reason.  Omar Ibrahim gives Simon’s Dad sensitivity – Ibrahim later appears as a quack swami figure, claiming to be able to get Simon on his feet and walking for the price of an iron and a toaster, in one of the play’s funniest scenes.  Georgia Burnell is strong as Donna, object of Simon’s affections; Elijah Baker demonstrates his skills at disco-dancing as mixed-race Mark, caught between communities; while James Mace’s rage-filled Keith is the ugly voice of racism, wrongly attributing the loss of a job opportunity to the arrival of That Lot.  The play acknowledges how white people can get caught up in this skewed way of looking at the world – Wouldn’t it be great to be able to state that such thinking has been thoroughly confined to the past?  Of course, the play is commenting on today as much as 1978.

Just like Simon’s household, the play is dominated by the matriarchal Bibi, in a commanding, hilarious performance from Seema Bowri, veering from the tyrannical to the desperate, but all done with love and the desire for the best for the family.

Neil Irish’s ingenious set gives us swift transitions between locations, along with Rory Beaton’s lighting, that accentuates the Bollywood fantasy moments.  Arun Ghosh’s original music heightens mood and flavour – together with extracts from Bollywood films, providing moments of nostalgia for many of the audience members tonight.  Andy Kumar’s choreography is joyous.  Director Pravesh Kumar balances the humour and drama of the domestic scenes, with the stylised action of the fantastical moments, and successfully evokes the menace of the largely off-stage racist rabble.

It all adds up to an enjoyable show with all-too strong parallels to today’s society.  What comes across most strongly is the shared humanity of the characters, in positive and negative lights.  This is thought-provoking entertainment of a very high quality.

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Gurkiran Kaur and Bilal Khan clash with more than the wallpaper (Photo: Richard Lakos)


Flash back

FLASHDANCE

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th September, 2018

 

I have vague memories of the film from 1983, with its story of a lady welder who dances in a nightclub and dreams of attending a posh dance academy.  The theme song, of course (and the video that went with it) are burned into the popular consciousness.  Here, original screenplay writer Tom Hedley adapts the piece for the stage, with the addition of original songs by Robert Cary and Robbie Roth.  Also included are key songs from the film (I Love Rock and Roll, Maniac, Gloria…) which, if I’m honest, knock the new material into a cocked hat.

Strictly’s Joanne Clifton leads the energetic company as Alex, dancing up a storm and taking advantage of the opportunity to showcase her other talents, acting and singing – the latter being rather good indeed.  Love interest comes in the form of a1’s Ben Adams as the boss’s pretty-boy son, Nick.  While Clifton’s vocals lean more toward musical theatre, Adams’s sweet and strong pop stylings work well in their duets.

Among the hard-working cast, stand-outs include Sia Dauda as Kiki, with big hair and a voice to match (it’s a shame she’s not put to use more) and Carol Ball as Alex’s mentor and benefactor, Hannah.  Matt Concannon makes an impression as the ostensible villain of the piece, sleazy club proprietor, CC, while Hollie-Ann Lowe has her moments as feisty-but-tragic Gloria.

The cast is great, the staging of the musical numbers with choreography by Matt Cole is fine, but it’s the dramatic scenes that require attention.  In some places, the pace of the dialogue needs to be snappier and, on the whole, scenes lack dynamics; director Hannah Chissick ought to apply a musical ear to the spoken words so that moments of drama can build and flow and reach a crescendo.

Apart from all that, the material is not to my taste.  A more interesting story might be of a classical ballerina trying to make it as a welder.  In the world of this piece, Alex is a skilled welder and nobody bats an eye (and why should they?) but the only other options for women seem to be working in clubs, performing suggestive routines, and parading around for the male gaze.  No wonder Alex wants to escape these dated sexual politics.

Despite Clifton’s sterling, tireless efforts, I’m not engaged by Alex’s tribulations.  I applaud the performance but I don’t enjoy the piece.  Oh well.

And I’m still wondering what became of her co-workers, like Rhodri Watkins’s Andy, facing redundancy and hardship.  The story seems to forget about them…

Flashdance, the musical. Kings Theatre, Glasgow. 5th August 2017

Joanne Clifton cools off after another blisteringly hot routine


Madskillz

CIRQUE BERSERK

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 26th July, 2018

 

Circus has changed – evolved – since its inception by Philip Astley 250 years ago.  Exotic animals have come and gone (thank goodness) and what we have today relies solely on the skills of human performers.  Gone too is Astley’s innovative ring in this ‘made for theatre’ show.  And with no ring, there is no ringmaster; the acts follow each other unannounced, giving the show an organic feel.

The Timbuktu Tumblers from Africa get things off to a flying start.  Dressed as walk-ons from Hamilton they hurl themselves through a skipping rope then pile onto each other in a range of configurations.  In the second half, they set fire to a limbo stick, setting the bar high – or rather, lowering it at increments.  They’re an engaging bunch and I look forward to seeing them later in the year at the Birmingham Hippodrome pantomime.

Luciana Gabriel and Carina treat us to a display of bolas spinning, to dazzling and percussive effect.  I can only think of the bruises they must have incurred during training!

Our clowns for the evening are a double-act from Brazil, the Mustache Brothers – imagine if Charlie Cairoli had sired the Super Mario Brothers and you get some idea.  Their make-up is subtle if their expressions are not. Their dumb-show antics are charming and, yes, funny, involving a ladder, a bucket of smoke, and a table.  The universal language of slapstick speaks to us all.

Other acts that impress are aerialists Rosey and Jackie, Odka, a contortionist who arrives on stage in a jar, unfolds herself and performs archery with her feet.  The Tropicana Troupe from Cuba use a platform, a seesaw and a crash mat to gobsmack us all, their deadpan expressions making them all the more camp.  Toni the Czech knife thrower is the most traditional act of the night; the brave woman who stands unflinchingly before him amazes me the most.  I also enjoy Laci Fossett and his aerial pole work, Germaine Delbosq who juggles on her back, using her feet to manipulate a cube, a cylinder and a ring while her hands deal with balls, Zula with his tower of chairs…  I would have liked more to be made of the flame-throwing robot.

The big finale for both halves concerns the ‘Globe of Death’ a spherical cage into which a man on a motorbike enters and rides around.  He is followed by a second.  And then a girl goes and stands in there with them.  The heady smell of petrol fills the auditorium – I spend the second half in a kind of awe-inspired daze, so by the time the globe reappears for the big finish, topping the feats of the first act, I am well away.  Perhaps too, the interval wine had something to do with it.

The upshot is a spectacularly entertaining evening.  Creative director Julius Green keeps things seamless, with contrasting acts and moods so nothing feels tired or repetitive.  In these days of commonplace CGI effects in just about everything, it is refreshing and thrilling to see real people perform these skills before your very eyes.  Cirque Berserk is non-stop entertainment, lacking the pretentiousness of other troupes I could mention.  Costumes of a bygone age blend with costumes from faraway places in a thoroughly contemporary setting, showing that the circus is still alive and well.  It’s solid fun for all the family and you can’t help admiring the hell out of everyone involved.

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On target: Odka (Photo: Tristram Kenton)